If Watford’s performances have made them one of the pleasant surprises of the Premier League season so far, it is partly because Abdoulaye Doucouré has finally been able to show his class. A dynamic midfield ball-winner as well as a nifty passer and a scorer of four goals so far this season, the Frenchman has had to wait a long time, and overcome a salvo of setbacks, for a chance to prove his ability.
“I’ve never given up on anything and I’ve always known how to be patient,” Doucouré says as he reflects on how he has endured two severe injuries to the same knee, several rejections and an imbroglio in which he was set to leave Watford before even starting a league game, only for the move to be aborted because paperwork arrived 33 seconds late. “Being the second-youngest of eight children has helped,” he says. “You get used to waiting your turn even if it’s just to have a go on the PlayStation. And you have to make sure you’re ready to take it when it comes. It’s the same in football.”
In 2010 Doucouré was hailed as one of the rising stars of European football even though, three years previously, he had flunked a trial at France’s prestigious Clairefontaine academy. “That was a major disappointment because that is a legendary academy and it was a dream to go there but it just made me more determined to find a club,” he says.
Doucouré speaks with charm and intelligence. His former PE teacher Mickaël Pellen knew Doucouré’s determination was a powerful force. When Doucouré was 12 he had been elected by his classmates as one of his school’s municipal advisers and used his position to lobby local government successfully for the construction of proper football facilities near Vigne Blanche, the underprivileged neighbourhood in Mureaux, west Paris, where he grew up with his Malian parents. It was an issue he felt strongly about because he had been unable to join a club until he was 11. “To get to the only club in my area you had to cross a really busy road and my mother forbade me from going there. She only relented when other residents went to her and said: ‘You have to let him go, things are better structured there and he will be able to make a success of himself.’”
On top of teaching, Pellen was a scout for Rennes and recommended Doucouré to the Breton club. Doucouré excelled there and began to rack up youth international caps. In 2010 he created a goal for Paul Pogba as France lost 2-1 in the semi-finals of the European Under-17 Championship, beaten by an England team whose midfield included Nathaniel Chalobah, now a team-mate at Watford. “It’s the first thing we spoke about when we met each other again here,” he says. “I remember being impressed by him and some of the other England players that day, such as Connor Wickham, who scored both their goals. It was a good match and an enjoyable time because France and England were staying in the same hotel and afterwards we hung out for a bit and played table tennis. I remember chatting to Benik Afobe, in particular, because Paul [Pogba] knew him and he speaks French.”
Shortly after that tournament Doucouré suffered his first serious injury, tearing the cruciate ligaments in his left knee. “I just said: ‘Nothing is going to stop me’ but it was a worrying time, all the same, because I hadn’t yet turned professional. But Rennes showed faith in me and gave me a contract even though I was injured. I think over the following years I repaid that faith.”
He eventually made his senior debut for Rennes in 2013, marking the occasion with a goal. But later that year he suffered the same injury again, forcing him to withdraw from the Under-20 World Cup that France went on to win. “There I was back in the same rut, and missing that tournament was a big blow but again I just said: ‘The only way to make up for this is to succeed at senior level.’” During his recovery he was supported by his cousin Ladji Doucouré, a former 110m hurdles world champion.
“We didn’t know each other well when we were younger because he lived quite far from me but we got to know each other better and he helped me a lot because he had also endured bad injuries. He just told me to stay focused, keep working and not to be selfish. Part of the reason that I wanted to become a footballer was to help my family and friends financially so that was one of the thoughts that kept me going.
“The good thing was that at least I knew I could come back because I had already done it once. But it’s true that it hardened my mentality even more. It really taught me to look after myself. I needed to get stronger, build up my muscles. I still work on it almost every day in the gym. You have to know your body and that also means knowing when it’s time to rest. Sometimes the coach will manage me and give me a day off so that I’m right for the weekend.”
Doucouré regained top form so quickly after his second injury that Watford tried to buy him in the summer of 2015. He turned them down because his wife was pregnant and he did not want to move. But Watford came calling again six months later and Rennes accepted an offer of around £8m. Doucouré was loaned immediately to Granada. “I wasn’t expecting that but they told me: ‘We have a lot of midfielders here and you need to go help Granada avoid relegation,’” he says. “I did exactly that. And playing in Spain enabled me to improve technically. The game is fast and intense over there and very much about one- and two-touch, even in training.
“But the English league is more spectacular and attacking and this was where I always wanted to be because I had watched players such as Yaya Touré and Abou Diaby do well here. They were the type of midfielders I wanted to be, running with the ball into spaces. I did well in Spain and thought I’d be put into the Watford team pretty quickly when I got back. But it turned out that the manager [Walter Mazzarri] didn’t have confidence in me. There were times I did wonder why I had been bought. In France it’s hard to understand that a club can spend millions on you and not play you but in England it’s like: ‘If you don’t do it, you’re not playing and we don’t give a damn because we have money.’”
On the final day of the summer 2016 transfer window, after a solitary start for Watford in an EFL Cup game against Gillingham, Doucouré was in a private plane at Luton airport, supposedly on his way to Lorient after a loan move had been agreed. But the flight was cancelled because the paperwork arrived at Fifa 33 seconds after the deadline. So Doucouré continued waiting for a chance to make his Watford career take off. It came four months later because of a spate of injuries to others.
Doucouré made his first league start against Tottenham Hotspur at Vicarage Road on New Year’s Day 2017, his 24th birthday. Watford lost 4-1 but he impressed so much that he has kept his place, becoming even more influential after Marco Silva replaced Mazzarri this summer. “He told me straight away that he expected me to be a very important player in his system,” says Doucouré, who believes Silva and many of this Watford team will achieve great feats.
“He is ambitious like certain players here who I think will go on to even bigger clubs one day,” he says. “He is very meticulous. He’s close to his players but uses competition to get the best out of us while also bringing the squad together. Me personally, he has given me advice about positioning and improving my decisions. It’s been very interesting. We do a lot of work with him on videos both as a team and individually. With me he goes through things I’ve done well and any mistakes I’ve made. He’s really helping me to progress.”
Silva has been suggested as an ideal candidate for the vacant managerial position at Everton but on Sunday he and Doucouré will travel to Goodison Park with the aim of inflicting more woe on the locals. Everton will need to have their guard up right until the end, given that Watford have made a habit of scoring last-minute goals this season. “That’s all about mental strength,” says Doucouré. “Being patient. Never giving up.”
The Guardian Sport